Howard Jacobson: Can we just stop talking about a 'Lost Decade'?

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The Independent Online

Now that the more articulate of the summer rioters have told us they can't wait to be sticking it to the Feds again some time soon, more sober minds must be considering how to stop them.

We don't normally proffer political advice in this column, but wouldn't it make sense to send Gareth Malone to the country's most deprived areas to form a choir of the young and unemployed? Yes, there'll be resistance, but Gareth is famously persuasive. And it could turn out to be a money spinner for the families of those involved. Who wouldn't shell out the price of a pair of trainer laces to see the Hackney and Tottenham Looters Choral Society perform their version of "The Laughing Policeman"?

Failing which, it strikes me there is something else we can do. Stop talking about a Lost Decade. If there are many who already feel left behind by society – and while I don't as a rule believe in trusting what miscreants have to say about the motives for their miscreancy, I do think their hopelessness rings true – then the prospect of a decade of being left behind even further is hardly going to pacify them. I don't suggest we lie. We wouldn't be believed if we tried. But the orgy of economic pessimism in which we have been indulging isn't simply an orgy of truth-telling. There's an insidiously glamorous poetry in the prediction of a "Lost Decade" or "Lost Generation". If it's self-flagellatory on the part of the money men, it's also self-flattering: it aggrandises the "gain" of which loss is the opposite – the good monetary times they once gave us.

That it's economists who speak of Lost Decades is not surprising, since it's on their terrain that the loss is being measured. "Armageddon", as some call the coming catastrophe, is not Armageddon of the biblical sort. It won't be the evil ones who will be thrown into the flaming pit but our savings. The Lost Generation will not be lost to war or cynicism but to financial stability. However, it's precisely because an economic loss is what's being envisaged that we need voices from other parts of society to remind us that we are not economic beings only.

When you make an arts programme for the BBC, they say you should treat the miserly budget as a window of opportunity. The fact that they give Jeremy Clarkson's producers more to film a minute's prattle at the wheel of a Yugo than they give yours to make a 20-part series on The Coming of Modern Man is to be seized on by you as a challenge. Tosh, but it conceals one truth, and that is that there is no straight ratio between the worth of what you do and the money it takes to do it. The production costs of Tyrannosaur would have been a small fraction of Jurassic Park's, but it is 10 times the movie. And I don't hesitate to extend that analogy to standards of living and even to employment, for all that I have been penniless and unemployed myself and know how hard it is not to succumb to the torpor of poverty and futility. But hard is not the same as impossible, and we do, quite frankly, have to make a virtue of adversity if the coming decade is not to vanish in sullenness and riot.

We have survived, and with nobility, hard times before. The decade immediately following the end of the Second World War has often been described as "Lost" but I lived through that and don't remember it as a period of unrelieved misery. No, we didn't knit our own suits or huddle round a box of matches and thank the Lord above for the miracle of heat, but we coped fine without Armani or central heating. We survived without fine dining, without a thousand TV channels, without Facebook, without iPhones. We went to libraries and youth clubs. We read books. We wrote poetry and stories, no matter to what standard; we played table tennis, ditto. I don't say we were the better for having to do without, but we didn't feel that we were "Lost".

The very last thing we need, of course, faced with the coming austerity, is the closure of public libraries, or education put out of reach of those who would most benefit from it. For such barbaric stupidity, we will pay dearly. But there is still life beyond the unaffordable pair of trainers. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a little story called The Lost Decade about a man who has been "out of civilisation", not in body but in mind – drunk the whole time – and who now wants to join life again, not to see the city sights but to observe "how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of. And their eyes and hands".

What if we, too, have been "out of civilisation"? What if the Lost Decade is not what we are going in to but coming out of – the Bankers' Age, the decade of footling technology, globalised junk, celebrity, stuffing our faces, a Lost Decade of human incuriosity in which we haven't cared "how people walk" or what their eyes and hands look like, in which art has been the lackey of advertising and imagination has declined into mere fantasy? I don't minimise material hardship, but we don't have to be supine before the system. The world is interesting beyond money; there is infinitely more to us than is dreamt of in the materialists' philosophy.